June 18, 2024

A Small Example of What Science is For

Following on to Claudia’s piece about the importance of scientific R&D, this article, while admittedly monkey business, illustrates the point:

Two monkeys with tiny sensors in their brains have learned to control a mechanical arm with just their thoughts, using it to reach for and grab food and even to adjust for the size and stickiness of morsels when necessary

From a technical perspective, we’re getting fairly close to being able to do something similar in humans.

Scientists expect that technology will eventually allow people with spinal cord injuries and other paralyzing conditions to gain more control over their lives.

There’s still debate over how practical this technology is and we don’t know how well humans would adapt to such implants, among other unknowns.  But it’s pretty darn cool and if you’re a person who’d be aided by such a device, potentially very helpful.

This experiment is one step farther along than previous ones, one more incremental improvement in a long series of them that may ultimately lead to insanely useful interfaces between man and machine.  These sorts of discoveries don’t come quickly or cheaply in most cases.  Many of the components of this latest device were undoubtedly intended for completely different purposes than monkey-brain-robotics, yet here we are.  Necessity may be the mother of invention, but without the fruits of R&D work to act as catalysts, need would remain barren.

Why go to the moon, Mars, or the asteroid belt?  What’s the point?  To me that’s the wrong question.  The right question is:  "Why not?"  That’s always the question, to which there are some valid negative answers.  But fundamentally science is about discovering the truth and for that reason alone should be pursued to the limits of ethics and possibility.

Knowing how things work leads to bigger and bigger discoveries and technologies, often in ways that can’t be predicted in advance.  That’s why the question "What’s it for?", while necessary to ask, shouldn’t serve as a governor on scientific inquiry. 

What’s a monkey-controlled robot-arm for?  In itself, nothing.  10 years from now, who knows?


Marc is a software developer, writer, and part-time political know-it-all who currently resides in Texas in the good ol' U.S.A.

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